Normandie, 3 Aout, 1944
Altho’ much of the novelty of our new surroundings has worn off, I am still impressed by the casual manner in which the people here live their lives while whole villages and towns are bludgeoned into stark masses of rubble and the roar of planes fills the sky and the endless stream of trucks, jeeps, tanks etc. rumble incessantly toward the front, camouflaged in their own tattle-tale dust clouds. Norman folk carry pitifully small bundles that represent their personal possessions are crowded into the steep-sided gutters that line the narrow roads. They are people who are returning to their homes – many of which are mere spectral walls, some of which are miraculously untouched.
In odd contrast to the villages and roads, the countryside has made no compromises with the old man Mars. It is as if he set his feet down only in certain villages which lay along his path, and no evidence of his passing exists beyond the tall, thick hedgerows lining the highways. It is haying time. Fields are dotted with piles of sweet hay, with men kneeling beside them, tying the hay into neat little bundles by a dexterous twist of a strand of grass. These bundles will be fed to the horses and cattle when winter comes, later in the year, to Normandy.
War is fickle. We seem to have been projected into a countryside that scarcely admits the war is going on. I cannot help remembering the day we left London to come here – the sirens were moaning plaintively and we saw several buses laden with evacuee children. Yet here, so much closer to the front, evacuees are returning to their homes! Only at night do we hear Jerry’s planes – usually just a few scattered bomb-reconnaissance planes. We can no longer hear the guns from the front.
I have spoken to many French people since coming here, and I am gratified to know that my French classes at Richmond were thoroughly worthwhile. I have difficulty in understanding French when it is spoken rapidly but that, of course, is to be expected. The following bits of information I was able to catch from those Frenchmen who were persuaded to speak slowly:
Rations under the Germans – 2 pkgs (40 cigarettes) per person per month; 2 small pieces of crude soap per month; no chocolate or other candy. Cider is made in December. If it is made right it will keep for three years (if the Germans and the Yanks don’t get it!) From the hard cider is made “Cognac”, more properly called “calnados” from the country that manufactures it. Even more properly it might be called rot-gut apple jack by those who have the temerity to try it. Eggs are not abundant because it has been impossible to find grain for the poultry.
The German soldiers, recently here, were youngsters from 16 to 20 years old. They were largely service troops, and very poorly fed – “even the dogs would not eat their food” said one reliable source. They often became so hungry that they would munch grass! Some returned from furloughs in Germany almost in tears, with reports that their families, their homes, their friends had all been killed or destroyed in the allied air offensive. Germans visiting French homes were quite agreeable when they came along to a house, but if two or more came together they were distrustful – afraid that what they might say would be held against them by the others.
I have taken every opportunity to talk to the people, hoping to become proficient in the language while I have the opportunity. I talk to the washerwomen who come to the stream running below our camp. I speak to the farmers working in the fields near us. I speak to the children who long ago, learned to ask for “shooly goon” and “bon-bons” from every passing soldier. I visit the farms each evening and gossip with the families – reviewing the war news, asking for cider or cherries, answering questions about America (“are there many elephants there, and camels in the deserts?”) I help two charming French girls with their English lessons, patiently striving to make them pronounce the “th” without a “z” sound.
It’s a very healthful life, living out-of-doors, getting plenty of sleep, appreciating food that would have seemed unpalatable in London, enjoying every minute of this new and absorbing life. Because things here are more exotic than in England, I count this experience second only to my sojourn in Venezuela, and I thank the fates that pull the world’s strings for giving me this opportunity. Packages received here in France will be much more appreciated than they were in England because here we can buy nothing except cider, cherries and an occasional egg. All the villages, hamlets and cities are “off limits” to all American servicemen and what rations of cigarettes, candy and toilet articles we receive, are doled out meagerly by the army, free of charge and at irregular intervals with the plea that we take only what we really need.
Cashmere Bouquet soap
Gillette’s Brushless Shaving Cream
Any 35-mm camera film (except type A Kodachrome)
Half and Half smoking tobacco
Tomorrow and Sunday I will post two more letter from Dave’s World War II Army Adventure.